All-Area Softball Pre-Season Watchlist
At the end of each softball season, the Tribune publishes its All-Area softball teams to recognize the top players in the area, with nine players from that group selected to the first team. Here are 10 players to keep an eye on to earn a spot on the All-Area first team in the 2018 season. See 2018 Prep Baseball and Softball Previews in Thursday's Tribune print edition.
This watch list is in no particular order but it would be malfeasance to start with anybody but the Litchfield Launcher (trademark pending). Estrada put up numbers that make you feel bad for other pitchers. She hit .484 with a .605 on-base percentage, thanks to an area-high 18 walks. When pitchers allowed her to hit, she mashed. She popped eight home runs and six doubles to pump her OPS up to 1.637. St. Cloud State will be getting a bonafide slugger in the 2019 season, but Litchfield gets her back for one more year to send school records to unspeakable heights.
This Willmar Cardinal decided to carry on the newly-founded Minnesota tradition of power-hitting second basemen, slamming eight home runs in a breakout 2017. Swoboda showed signs during her sophomore year, but she announced her arrival with an overwhelming 2017 where she added a .479 batting average, a 1.396 OPS, 26 runs scored, 22 runs batted in and nine stolen bases. Willmar will have a lot of new faces in big positions this season, but Swoboda alone is worth the trip to the field.
New London-Spicer reached previously unseen heights last year and the credit often went to strikeout machine Olivia Christopherson, but Katelyn Nordmeyer happened to have a devastating under-the-radar freshman season for the Wildcats. The NLS shortstop hit for a .447 average with a .829 slugging percentage after mashing nine doubles and six home runs. It's hard to imagine her numbers getting much better than that in 2018 but then again, she has surprised us before. Nordmeyer has the potential to go from very good to "oh my goodness, can we just not pitch to that player ever again"-good.
Here's a rule I just made up that should become a law: any player that sets school records as a junior (or earlier) automatically makes the watchlist in the ensuing year. Now, because I'm not a lawbreaker and only an occasional rule bender, Rylie Wilner earns a spot on this list. Her 2017 campaign was littered with single season school records in hits, doubles, runs batted in (33), total bases (69) and slugging percentage (1.000). On top of that, she also has career records in hits and total bases. She posted the area's second-highest batting average (.565) and spanked 13 doubles and five home runs to help add up to a 1.589 OPS. Her defensive skills also help put her in contention for Area MVP, which isn't a thing but certainly could be.
Some schools wait generations for a talent like Sam Gjerde but KMS just seems to add talented players like a college freshman adds pounds. Mallory Rudningen could very well be the next in a long line of standout Saints, following a strong sophomore season in 2017. The centerfielder batted at a .443 clip with a .489 on-base percentage and a 1.096 OPS. She was an expert at helping her teammates score with 28 runs batted in but she also finished with 22 runs scored of her own and nine doubles. Nobody can truly replace a player like Gjerde, but Rudningen has all of the tools to come close and should be in the All-Area first team conversation come June.
KMS has held the Camden Conference title for approximately 89 years but Lac qui Parle Valley could be the ones to break with streak thanks to players like Kelsea Lund. The senior capped an incredible basketball career, and though hoops are her speciality, she is a frightening player for other teams to encounter during the softball season as well. The Eagles' shortstop batted .444 with a .500 on-base percentage, tallying 38 runs scored and eight doubles. Her defensive prowess also helped the Eagles to an impressive 4.0 runs allowed per game. It might be a cliche at this point, but Lund is a leader that should have the Eagles on the right path in 2018.
Wollschlager is exactly the type of do-everything player that any area team would want and Lac qui Parle Valley certainly takes advantage of the dynamic junior. She finished the year with a .416 on-base percentage and 26 runs scored in the batter's box and was equally terrifying in the pitching circle. She logged a 6-2 regular season record with a 2.52 earned run average and 63 strikeouts in 65 innings pitched. She should see even more innings this year after the graduation of Kylee Larsen and her speedy fastball should yield some high strikeout numbers this spring.
Few pitchers return with better numbers than Maddy Patzer and she's keen to make those numbers even better. She posted a 7-0 record with a 2.10 earned run average in the regular season as part of the three-person pitching rotation for the Eagles. While Wollschlager provides the heat, Patzer provides a craftiness that can leave hitters frustrated. Patzer's strikeout numbers won't stun anybody as she relies on a good Eagle defense to make plays on the ground balls she induces.
Catchers that hit make me happy so Courtney Hanson absolutely, positively needed to be on this list. She posted an impressive .438 batting average with an astonishing .667 batting average with runners in scoring position last season, which helped her accumulate 21 runs batted in. She tallied a home run as well and that pop could be replicated a few times this season. Last season she helped Olivia Christopherson to a 2.34 earned run average with 225 strikeouts and a .186 on-base percentage and caught a pair of no-hitters by the lefty. This year, Hanson's catching ability and game management will be crucial for the Wildcats' new pitchers.
Hannah Johnson is one of the few basketball players in the area that has the ability to take over the game for stretches of time and I'm going to let you in on a little secret: she can do that in softball, too. As a sophomore, Johnson batted .396 with a .439 on-base percentage and 1.085 OPS, and finished with four doubles and a pair of home runs in just 58 plate appearances. Now a junior, this Cardinal game changer should see an elevated spot in the lineup and an opportunity to drive in more runs.